Researchers acquit the tins in mysterious failed Franklin expedition

Apr 09, 2013

(Phys.org) —New research from Western University challenges long-held beliefs regarding the demise of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated Northwest Passage expedition that departed from England in 1845.

A landmark study from 1981, led by Owen Beattie (a since-retired anthropology professor emeritus at the University of Alberta), concluded that while the British crew most likely died of pneumonia and tuberculosis, lead poisoning – a result of poorly soldered tin cans – was also a contributing factor.

More than 30 years later, technology and scientific advancements have provided a new team of researchers, led by Western chemistry professor Ron Martin, evidence that faulty solder seals in tinned meat cans were not the principal source of lead found in the remains of the Franklin crew members.

The findings, revealed in the paper titled "Pb distribution in bones from the Franklin expedition: synchrotron and /," were recently published in Applied Physics A: Materials Science and Processing.

"We'll probably never know what happened to the crew of the Franklin so it will remain one of the great mysteries of Canadian history but our resources fail to support the hypothesis that the lead in the bones came from the tins and I certainly believe that it didn't," says Martin, the paper's lead writer and principal investigator. "The time, from departure to death, just wasn't long enough for lead from the tins to become so dominant throughout all the bones."

Martin and his Western colleagues Andrew Nelson, Steven Naftel and Sheila Macfie collaborated with Keith Jones from Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York to examine bone samples using a Synchrotron (a using for taking x-rays), as well as scientists at the University of Windsor, utilizing laser sampling technology.

The x-rays confirmed a high level of lead in the bones but the voyage was too brief for the crew to absorb the lead from the cans and the distribution throughout the skeleton is not consistent with short-term exposure.

Martin and his team conclude the poisoning, which could result in neurological disease, commenced prior to the Franklin expedition's departure and was likely a common problem for many 19th century people.

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User comments : 6

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campaigner
1 / 5 (3) Apr 09, 2013
...they may have been practising for months before, or attempting to get used the food before they left or just testing it to make sure it tasted palatable.
This would have lead to a build up plus they may additional absorption from the amount of lead paint around at the time, this and the amount on the voyage was just enough to be fatal.
QuixoteJ
1 / 5 (4) Apr 09, 2013
The title of the article suggests acquittal of the tins, while the article itself implicates them.
Am I missing something?
dacarls
not rated yet Apr 09, 2013
tin pest? What is tin pest? I read of empty petrol tins 60 years ago and did not understand anything other than poor soldering and vapour pressure (plus abysmal planning) as causes of Scott's expedition deaths.
PPihkala
not rated yet Apr 09, 2013
Tin pest is phenomen were pure tin is transformed to another mechanical configuration when it is cold enough, below 13 C. Look it up for more info.
scidog
not rated yet Apr 10, 2013
was any work done to get a lead base line in bones from the local population in the UK not involved in the expedition?
also i know lead is lead but perhaps smelting in the 1800's resulted in impurities that made the solder unlike what we have and use now with the results that the tipping point for fatal dose would have been reached faster.i would think that just enough lead to fog your thinking and not kill you outright would be fatal in the arctic.
a good read on Franklin can be found in Farley Mowat's "ordeal by ice"
jsdarkdestruction
not rated yet Apr 10, 2013
The title of the article suggests acquittal of the tins, while the article itself implicates them.
Am I missing something?

Yes, reading the article past the first paragraph.
"More than 30 years later, technology and scientific advancements have provided a new team of researchers, led by Western chemistry professor Ron Martin, evidence that faulty solder seals in tinned meat cans were not the principal source of lead found in the remains of the Franklin crew members."

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